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We were almost to the bridge over the I-5 freeway in Eugene, Ore., when he said, “How old are you?”
“Forty-five.” I had just asked him his age and was shocked to learn he was only 32. Now it was his turn to be shocked. I was sure we were over.
But he just said, “Oh,” and kept driving.
Later, after we had hiked to the top of a mountain and were lying on our backs, looking up at a cloudless sky, he said, “How come you don’t have any gray hair?”
“Don’t know, but I’ve never dyed it.”
“I can tell. Hair that color doesn’t come out of a bottle.”
We didn’t know much about each other, except that he was a news reporter at a local paper, and I was an intern, having just finished a later-in-life journalism degree. He liked a story I had written about a stamp collector in which I used the word “philatelic.”
I liked the self-confident way he interviewed people on the phone, not to mention how he looked in khakis and the little curl of brown hair that fell over his shirt collar. He was intelligent and really funny.
Freshly divorced, I had three children between 11 and 19. David had left a reporting job in Indiana to move to Oregon so that he could take care of his grandmother, who had raised him after his mother left the family. He had never been married.
Eight months later, he and I both ended up working at another media outlet, where we were part of a group of journalists who loved to go for after-work beers and conversation. No one knew we were dating, since David firmly believed that workplace romances were a bad idea — in theory.
In practice, we spent a lot of time together. He was an avid surfer and I liked hanging on the beach with our dogs. We camped, hiked, cooked. We never ran out of things to talk and joke about. We celebrated every solstice and equinox with a hike and a picnic in the woods, leaving treats for the wild animals and making love on a blanket to celebrate the turn of the season.
One cold winter solstice day, we found ourselves alone on the summit of a rock-topped butte, watching transfixed as a huge black cloud barreled toward us in an otherwise blue sky. When the cloud came overhead and let loose, we took refuge under a rock ledge, laughing in disbelief as snow pelted the plants and rocks. Just a hundred feet down the trail, the ground was bare.
Not long after, I was chopping vegetables at my kitchen counter when I felt love knocking — like a physical slam in my chest. Is this the kind of love you see in the movies, I wondered? Despite my long marriage, I had always thought that level of feeling must be fake. Now I knew better.
David clearly loved me too, and he wasn’t afraid to show it, but I couldn’t help worrying about our age difference. He wanted to start a family, and I already had one.
One day, as we waited to cross a street, he turned to me and raised that exact issue, saying he wanted to marry someone who also had all of that ahead of her.
“I know,” I said, as we started to cross. “I don’t want to marry you either.”
He stopped abruptly, looking hurt. What did he expect? I already knew I didn’t want to end up potentially watching my younger man one day looking at even younger women. Just thinking about that was painful, but the alternative — losing him — was just as bad.
I harbored a flickering dream that things might work out. I didn’t see how they could, but maybe through some miracle, like in the movies. The fact that I looked younger than my years didn’t help the cause of realistic thinking.
We went our separate ways twice over the next few years. We would stop making plans and he would drift away. It was hard, but I let him go, because according to logic, we weren’t supposed to be a couple anyway.
Each time, we dated other people. My occupied heart left no room for new romance, but I made some friends. David’s dating life, on the other hand, was tough for me to watch, like when he started seeing a librarian who lived across the street from where we both worked. I would see his truck in front of her house in the evenings, and it nearly did me in.
At another point he dated a journalist who looked somewhat like me and was only five years older than he was. One evening, I tore some of her newspaper stories into little pieces and lit them on fire in the driveway. It was only mildly gratifying.
After his dating episodes, David would always find a reason for us to get together for a beer. And then we would get involved all over again. He said we were two peas in a pod. But his resolve to marry a younger woman and have a family hadn’t changed, and I was unable or unwilling to worry about the future.
We spent five years in an on-again off-again relationship, and then he and his grandmother moved from Eugene to a town on the Oregon coast, some 95 miles away. I drove out there almost every weekend, and we hung out on the beach and hiked and read and cooked and did all the things we loved to do together.
Laughter came easily and so did everything else, until one morning when an unusual thing happened for the coast of Oregon — it snowed. We were drinking coffee and looking out the window of a tiny blue rental cabin with crooked wood floors, a dwelling so past its prime that when you touched the stove you got a shock. The cabin was perched on the edge of a cliff, and the flakes were falling fast and hard to the beach below.
It was in this surreal landscape that David put down his cup of coffee and gently said, “Rosemary, we are going to move home. I want to take my grandmother back to Hawaii so she can have her last years there.”
I knew he had been thinking about going, but my breath caught in my chest, and I could barely respond. Finally, I mustered something like, “That makes sense. I understand.” But I was devastated.
Once again, though, I rallied. We decided to take a 10-day trip to the Big Island so he could find a place to live. We made music playlists, rented a car, and had a wonderful time. We were both so good at ignoring the future. Then he moved, and we broke up, but we missed each other terribly and got back together before long.
My boss even let me work in stretches from David’s house in Hilo. It felt right, even though a future with him was still an impossible dream.
One evening, on a transoceanic phone call, he mentioned that there was a woman in his yoga class who was interested in him. “But I can’t do anything about it,” he said — meaning because of me, of us.
I said the first thing that came to mind: “We should break up.”
I could hear the surprise in his voice. “Yeah,” I said. “If you want to date other people, we need to call it quits.”
“I guess you’re right.” He didn’t think it would be this easy.
I couldn’t be angry — the terms were clear. Even so, my friends said it was the first time they had ever seen me really depressed.
We stayed in touch, of course, and talked on the phone every so often, but eventually the gaps grew longer. Then, after a year or so of silence, I got an email.
“I know, I know,” he had written. “It’s been a while. So much to catch up on. I got a new job. I’m all married and everything. But hey, I’ve been meaning to reach out, and the setting sun just struck me in the face, and it’s the equinox after all, so for goodness sake — hello!”
And so it was. He had married the kind of woman he’d always said he would. A few years later, he would also have the child he had dreamed of. Yet our friendship has endured, and we still check in on the solstice.
Some have said he was selfish. Or that I wasted my time. Neither is true.
What is true? The note I wrote on a slip of paper and put in the drawer of my bedside table after we broke it off that final time: “Long after you are gone, my stones will hold your warmth.”